On deciding for the title of this novel, writer Jerzy Kosinki was inspired by the symbolic use of birds in literature which "allowed certain people to deal with actual events and characters without the restrictions which the writing of history imposes". He states that there was a certain peasant custom he witnessed as a child before in which he describes it as follows:
"One of the villagers' favorite entertainment was trapping birds, painting their feathers, and then releasing them in the air to rejoin their flock. As these brightly colored creatures sought the safety of their fellows, the other birds, seeing them as threatening aliens, attacked and tore at the outcasts until they killed them."Due to the controversial nature and content of this book, I was surprised that I even stumbled upon a copy about a year ago while once again casually flipping through the general section of a bookstore. I've only known about the book months prior to acquiring it, and I was so excited to start reading it on a scheduled time. Some months later, I did just that and for two days I was immersed in witnessing the ugliest and most vile horrors I have ever read in fiction that were loosely based from real-life accounts of people who lived through the second World War. There was nothing about this book I enjoyed, to be honest. It was psychologically painful and slightly numbing to peruse through, especially with each chapter dealing with deprived deviant acts of the social and sexual kind. That being said, this is a spectacular novel that examines the darker and sickening aspects of human nature, and it was successful in its depiction because I don't think any decent person would enjoy the varying degrees of cruelty and degradation that Kosinski have shared in The Painted Bird.
The Painted Bird follows the travels of a six-year-old Jewish boy in Central Europe, and whose parents have sent him away in beliefs that he would fare better away from the heart of the warfare and Nazism at the time. What happens mainly instead over the course of the book is that the boy was forced to grow up very quickly, robbed of another option, as he stays in one village after another, more often discriminated against, beaten up and rarely cared for. As a book that deals with the Holocaust, Kosinski managed to stay away from events surrounding the actual prison or labor camps where the Jews were gassed or incinerated. We all know that's where the real horror lies but Kosinski challenged this idea and revealed to us that in times of warfare, even the most modest of places such as rural villages can be sources of the most potent evil human beings are capable of.
This book delved deeply on the shocking ways that antisemitic sentiment, religious persecution and barbaric superstitions could turn people into hateful creatures; that even the simple folk back then can and will ruefully participate in terrible acts, often justifying their malicious intentions as divine interventions, against the boy himself, and any Jewish or Gypsy person of the same ilk who would pass their way. I don't think it's worth specifying these truly disgusting and abhorrent events here in my review, mostly because I'm still sick to my stomach just thinking about them. Even the subtlest ways of these people when it comes to their maltreatment of the boy just because he has black hair and dark eyes (and therefore an abomination to God) were chilling in retrospect. So, yes, I did not enjoy reading this book but I was fully hypnotized into trudging along each chapter anyway.
I could then claim that this was a great exercise on moral conscience and inherent human compassion on the end of the readers such as myself who have developed a certain keen sense of cynicism over the years regarding the world at large. I am not shocked easily by gory details but I have to admit that this book made me feel bad every time I try to insert some humor in my initial thoughts in Goodreads for the reading updates while reading. It doesn't feel like a subject to be made light of, personally, but it was also the only way I can endure reading the chapters--I had to find some sort of morbid amusement and detachment just so I don't get thoroughly disheartened.
What was so moving about this novel, however, was the main character of the boy who remains unnamed throughout, but whose iron will and resilient youth had made it possible for him to come out on the other side alive, though fragmented and forever changed. Children are tougher than we give them credit for, and I was comforted with the fact that he was resourceful in adapting to multiple situations where his own life and innocence are fully at stake. This book features tons of examples of mob mentality (the likes of which are awfully symbolized by the painted-birds analogy Kosinski has utilized), as well as separate incidents of incest and bestiality, and a rather disconcerting abundance of gang rapes at the later part of the book where a whole chapter is devoted describing the entire thing in painstakingly gross detail. This is not a book meant for enjoyment so if you happen to decide you want to read it, please remember what I just said in this review.
The Painted Bird also operates on the wisdom that there are no happy lives, just happy moments, and about fifty pages near the end, the readers are allowed to view snapshots of the boy's life in the aftermath of the fall of the Third Reich and though there was nothing immediately uplifting about it, it's the best happy ending he could make out of from the traumatic experiences that have shaped him, and malformed him somehow. Personally, I didn't expect that there's going to be a healing message by the end of this tragic tale anyway. I think the ambiguity of the resolution for The Painted Bird accomplishes what it was set out to do in the first place: to remind readers that the darkness hovering in our lives is real and it could seep through the cracks, whether or not we allow it.
But the real test of courage and spiritual enlightenment is on how we cope and deal with the poison that corrodes our systems, and I would like to believe against hope that we can rise above our own base impulses towards hatred, ignorance and persecution. There is corruption and sickness in the world, yes, but we all should strive to be the balm on its infected pores. The Painted Bird, after showing me so much inhumane and malicious acts that people do to each other, has also reminded me of my humanity and the blessings and burdens of ensuring I don't give in to the call of moral decay and disintegration of values, no matter how easy (and even remotely tempting) it is to be lesser beings.